The greatest football season in Aquinas history wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Not with a late touchdown by its opponent, and not with the Irish players feeling gutted after a hard-fought battle in the Class A quarterfinals.
Landmark Christian won its fourth consecutive playoff road game, 28-21, against the Irish before a packed Aquinas Stadium. Up next is a trip to the Georgia Class A semifinals; the War Eagles will travel to play Eagle’s Landing Christian.
Connor Tierney’s 39-yard field goal tied the game with one minute to play, but Landmark Christian wasn’t content to sit on the ball and go into overtime. The War Eagles moved into Irish territory on a big pass play, then quarterback Cantrell Frazier scrambled 14 yards to put his team on the Aquinas 28.
On the next play, Jeremiah Kirkland took a screen pass and raced 28 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 13 seconds to play. The Aquinas bench believed Landmark Christian was holding on the play, but no penalty was called against the visitors. Instead, the Irish were penalized three times for unsportsmanlike conduct and the War Eagles kicked off from the Aquinas 30.
Landmark Christian (11-2) recovered the squib kick, and ran out the clock.
“You think there might have been a few guys getting held, but that’s why the referees get paid, to make those calls,” Aquinas coach Matt LeZotte said.
The War Eagles have made a deep playoff run the hard way: winning on the road. Counting a victory over Wesleyan in a Region 5-A play-in game, Landmark Christian also was the visitor in playoff wins against Darlington and Calvary Day.
Friday night’s game was similar to the season opener between Aquinas and Landmark Christian. In that one, the War Eagles held on for a hard-fought, 10-8 victory over the Irish.
Aquinas led 10-7 at halftime but fumbled the second half kickoff. Kirkland made the Irish pay the next play with a 25-yard run. He added a 19-yard run later in the quarter, and the visitors took a 21-10 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The Irish (9-4) refused to give up. After recovering a fumble, Aquinas pulled closer with Brendan Douglas’ 6-yard run and a 2-point conversion.
Then the defense held, and Aquinas drove inside Landmark Christian’s 25 before settling for Tierney’s field goal.
“That’s one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen in my life,” Landmark Christian coach Kenny Dallas said.
Aquinas was bidding for the first 10-win season in school history, but the Irish couldn’t hold on to their halftime lead.
“We fought back tough. It’s a tough one,” LeZotte said. “We got down and showed a heck of a lot of character. We had a great season, the best in school history. I wish Landmark Christian the best of luck in the playoffs.”
Aquinas scored first on a 65-yard drive that featured Douglas exclusively. He rushed eight times on the nine-play drive, and he threw a pass good for 18 yards on the other to Ray Thompkins. Douglas capped the drive with a 9-yard burst up the middle for the score.
Landmark Christian countered with a scoring drive that used two big plays. The first came on Frazier’s 38-yard scramble. Kirkland added the other, a 21-yard run, and then followed on the next play with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Aquinas took the lead at halftime with the aid of two costly face-mask penalties called against the War Eagles. Tierney booted a 49-yard field goal that seemingly had the luck of the Irish – it hit the crossbar and bounced through as time expired.